Less than two hours before the puck dropped in a game practically no one outside his room thought should be played, Montreal Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme was asked what he was hoping his decimated team could achieve.
“I’m hoping we’ll compete hard for 60 minutes and leave with our players healthy,” he said.
Forget about a win against the NHL’s best home team; the goal was simply to compete and survive against the Florida Panthers.
Its accomplishment was in serious doubt when Cedric Paquette took a hit to the head a minute into his first shift and missed the remainder of the first period.
With Paquette in the room – he eventually returned for the second but finished the game there due to a reported neck injury – Michael Pezzetta elected to fight Radko Gudas, leaving the Canadiens with nine forwards for more than five minutes. And with Brendan Gallagher hurt halfway through the previous game and Jake Evans joining the long list of Montreal players in COVID protocol just an hour before Ducharme spoke, this team was already redefining “playing shorthanded.”
Alex Romanov, who led the first two games of road trip in total ice time, joined Evans in protocol, leaving the Canadiens with five defencemen available. Put it down as a win that all five of them finished the game.
As for the outcome, the Canadiens lost 5-2 despite pulling ahead 2-1 in the 10th minute of the second period on a goal from Nick Suzuki.
He was the only player dressed who had played every game of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs with Montreal, and he played 24:41 after previously skating a career-high 25:24 in the loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning that started this road trip.
Suzuki said he was happy to do it.
“I take it as a challenge,” the 22-year-old said. “I like being out on the ice, so I’m good with more minutes. Just trying to do my best and help the team.”
Suzuki wanted to play.
According to Kale Clague, the recent waiver-wire pickup who led the Canadiens with 27:34 against the Panthers, so did every player in a Canadiens uniform.
When Canadiens management discussed a potential postponement with the NHL, they reportedly expressed a desire to see this one through. Already in Florida, already facing a demanding schedule that will become frenetic once the Canadiens come off an upcoming 10-day break due postponements of home games, they were able to scratch this one off the list with the approval of NHL doctors and the league’s brass.
Ducharme wasn’t willing to say he was in favour of playing before it started, but no one would blame the coach for not wanting to go through the motions of an unwinnable game. He simply said he wasn’t a part of the discussion and was prepared to do what was required.
Meanwhile, his young players continued to get opportunities they’d have otherwise never gotten.
Former seventh-round pick Rafael Harvey-Pinard made the most of his, scoring in his first NHL game against the Lightning before leaving this impression on veteran teammate Jonathan Drouin against the Panthers:
“For me, he’s a little guy who has talent but one who works so hard,” Drouin said. “You look at the end of the game, we’re down 5-2 and he’s blocking two big shots. That’s the attitude we want within the Canadiens. He’s had success in the American League. but I think he’s going to be an NHLer one day. He works so hard and has a good attitude.”
Harvey-Pinard isn’t alone.
Lukas Vejdemo, 25, has shown a maturity in his game that lends to the idea he can play full-time in this league and be effective. He’s been dynamic offensively, reliable defensively, and his coach has taken note.
“I think for him, you talk about a quicker league, but he’s a really good skater,” said Ducharme. “For him, it forces him to maybe be using that speed even more maybe at that level because he understands that it’s the best league in the world and it’s quicker. But he’s a great skater. He’s focusing on his strength, which is skating well, and it generates some chances.
“So, that’s something that any player, when you move up to another level, focusing on your strengths and playing within that is really important. As you grow as a player, you get to understand how you’re going to have success. He’s using those tools ... he did that for three games.”
We’d suggest Jesse Ylonen, the 22-year-old taken in the second round of the 2018 Draft, is doing the same.
He was rewarded with his first NHL assist on Suzuki’s second-period goal.
Drouin, who scored Montreal’s first goal, also played a good one after missing Thursday’s loss to the Carolina Hurricanes with a non-COVID-related illness. He said he wasn’t feeling 100 per cent but, given the situation, knew he needed to help.
Drouin tipped Sami Niku’s shot in the first period to get the Canadiens on the board, and he played a career-high 5:05 on the penalty kill, where he’d previously played less than 28 minutes total over his 419 NHL games.
Now he’ll rest, and so will his teammates.
Like Romanov, Evans will do it in Florida after expressing his concern about that very scenario just two days ahead of his positive test.
“I think with all these quarantine rules, and just with COVID, you don’t want to get it and you know you’re in a, I guess you can say, kind of a hot spot with how many guys are getting it,” Evans said. "You don’t want to be stuck in a city you’re not familiar with, too.”
Provided he’s asymptomatic, Evans will be in isolation for five days in a Florida hotel room, and then he’ll likely fly to Plattsburgh, N.Y., before being driven over the border to Montreal. Same goes for Romanov and Brandon Baddock, while Cayden Primeau will come out of his isolation and head to New Jersey for the remaining nine days it takes to be permitted to fly back to Montreal.
As for everyone else boarding the Canadiens’ charter home, they’re being asked to lay low through Jan. 6.
The hope is that the Canadiens will emerge for their next game on Jan. 12, in Boston, with a much healthier roster than the one they iced in Florida. And, with any luck, no one will be wondering if they should even be playing.
When we asked Ducharme after the game about that, he said didn’t discount the possibility.